Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 29, 2013

Guest opinion:

Teens should be involved in disaster preparedness

by Divya Saina

Hurricane Sandy was a stark reminder to us that Mother Nature has the power to strike anywhere at anytime. We've seen that even in the strongholds of our urban landscape, we are vulnerable to major breakdowns of basic civic amenities such as water, electricity and phone service. This means we would be well served to not take our normal, everyday living for granted, but rather to invest time and energy in getting the basic essentials of preparedness sorted out proactively. To summarize my previous column, the framework of preparedness consists of four basic parts — becoming informed, building a kit, making a family plan, getting involved in joint community action.

Most preparedness efforts are directed towards the adult population in our society, and this can easily be rationalized as the logical thing to do. After all, adults know the ways of the world and are primarily responsible for taking care of their families. A compelling argument, can be made, however, that young adults can be equally as effective in playing significant and meaningful roles in all aspects of disaster management: preparedness, response and recovery. Children comprise approximately 25 percent of our nation's population and their social, emotional and physical well-being and contributions will play vital roles for everybody after a disaster. As significant parts of our society, teens must be included in the debate and the efforts. Here's why:

The social component

Teens have the same reputation all around the world: They are technology addicts. This winter when I travelled to India, my cell phone didn't have service in the foreign country. I found myself at unease by the second day without my direct access to technology. A couple days later, however, I got to meet some of my cousins. They too had their gazes fixed on tiny screens and ears plugged by earbuds. My eyes lit up as I saw phones, iPads, iPods and laptops everywhere. I realized that teens everywhere are technologically the same.

Think about your own teens, or your neighbor's teens. Don't they always have phones in hand? Doesn't this phone vibrate non-stop? Can teens even consider living a day without typing, chatting, tweeting, commenting, posting, messaging, texting and clicking? The answer is no! And as much trouble teens get in today for having their eyes glued to digital screens for 12 hours straight, for going on Facebook as soon as they wake up, and for texting over their monthly limits regularly, if you truly think about it, this intimate familiarity with the digital world could be a great asset during a disaster. In the aftermaths of a disaster, teens will do what they do best, and will help communicate and comprehend information.

The community will use this, dare I say, skill to get messages out, to gather updated information, to connect families together, and to inform authorities about vital situations. Teens will be in their natural habitats as they tweet, text and post furiously. All that is needed now is for teens to be provided with the proper training and to be brought a sense of awareness about when to harness their innate technological talents in manners that can make a real difference to themselves and the community.

The emotional component

What we need, more than anything, is to have everybody in the community stay calm in the aftermaths of a disaster. Safety will be of utmost importance during this time, and safety will be enhanced if and only if we are all mentally and emotionally resilient. In the midst of a devastating disaster, a teen could find it difficult to muster this resiliency. For this reason, teens and children need to be helped in the process of building up their mental-readiness and emotional preparedness proactively. Teens who are able to stay calm and collected after a disaster will prove to be huge assets for the community, which will be able to use their help. On the contrary, if teens are panicking, unsafe situations will arise, and the community will suffer from a loss, as a huge percentage of community help will be disabled. It is important, therefore, to orient teens to the basics of preparedness such that during times of crisis, they are not only able to cope emotionally but are also able to offer assistance.

The physical component

Finally, it should be well understood that teens are as, if not more, physically capable as adults in communities. After a disaster their physical strength will be a direct asset when certain things will need to be moved, transported or distributed. Of course teens will need to be informed and proactively involved in preparedness efforts to understand this. Prepared teens are more confident than their peers. That confidence can translate into real impact — for their own lives, as well as the lives of their families, friends and neighbors.

These three components truly exemplify that teens are an important part of the overall emergency preparedness and response picture, thus highlighting necessity to involve them in ongoing debates and trainings. Not only will training teens be beneficial to communities during this generation, but it must also be remembered that investing in preparedness is similar to investing in a life skill. The skills taught will be useful for the rest of the teen's life. Thus, in essence, getting involved now will continue to be valuable knowledge and an asset to young adults in their futures. Finally, prepared teens today ensure a future generation of prepared adults, ensuring that our future society and our posterity will be stronger and more resilient than ever before. Now is the time to get teens involved.

Contact epvolunteers@paneighborhoods.org to learn about how teens can become Palo Alto Block Preparedness Coordinators. Also check out Facebook.com/PaloAltoEarthquakePreparedness to stay up-to-date about upcoming volunteer opportunities and classes.

Divya Saini is a junior at Gunn High School and a member of FEMA's first federal National Youth Preparedness Council.

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